A sardonic story of divorce, depression and the road to recovery by the Schitt’s Creek screenwriter
Of the 43 most stressful events that an average adult might contend with in their lifetime, “divorce” and “marital separation” rank at Nos 2 and 3 respectively, grimly sandwiched between “spousal death” and “imprisonment”. (“Vacations” and “frequency of family reunions” make the list too – useful to remember in the wake of the holiday season.) It’s a nugget of popular psychology with which Maggie, the heroine of Monica Heisey’s debut novel, Really Good, Actually, would be familiar.
Maggie’s story is one of divorce, depression and the road to recovery. She is 29 years old, a PhD student living in Toronto and married – at the start of the book, at least – to her long-term partner, the stable and solvent Jon. When he moves out, taking the cat with him, well-meaning friends and colleagues rally round, suggesting online dating, therapy and new hobbies. A surprising number mention kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken things. Maggie compiles a list of them all with a mocking faux-exhaustion.
Lists are Maggie’s thing. “My marriage ended,” she begins, “because I was cruel. Or ate in bed. Or because he liked electronic music and difficult films about men in nature. And because I did not.” Heisey gives Maggie a sardonic self-awareness that sits alongside her proper sadness. It makes Really Good, Actually a smart and funny coming-of-divorce novel, a story of self-reckoning with a likable heroine to root for. Heisey earned her writing stripes in TV, including on Schitt’s Creek, and it shows in a book full of millennial witticisms and reliably regular deadpan turns. But the seemingly tireless facility for jokes and comic self-deprecation can also be wearing. It risks a certain glibness, allowing Heisey to skate over the more serious concerns buried inside the book: the deep feelings of brokenness and loss that come in the wake of a failed relationship. These are often glimpsed, before inevitably giving way to a joke.
This doesn’t make Maggie an unreliable narrator of her own consciousness, exactly. Instead, Heisey provides us with alternative routes into the interiority of an extremely online millennial, at once ironically removed from her emotional reality and constantly self-revealing. The morning Jon leaves, Maggie takes a selfie of her sad face and immediately downloads Facetune to edit the dark circles under her eyes. Chapters comprised entirely of Google search history terms (“24 hour delivery toronto”, “dial a bottle toronto”, “what is tiktok”, “kate bush this woman’s work karaoke”, “how delebe tiktok” etc) read like a breadcrumb trail into her mind.
There’s certainly a breezy confidence to Heisey’s mode of storytelling via text messages and Tinder correspondence, but quickfire DM exchanges in an age of internet dating can also read like comedy sketches, obstructing the possibility of real insight. It’s a shame, since Heisey clearly recognises that for modern singletons navigating the online dating market, the struggle is real. Heisey is exploring loneliness in an internet age, the vulnerability of being uncoupled in a culture that prizes relationships, and the fear and helplessness of separation that hits Maggie like a blow.
Early on Maggie describes sleeping in an empty bed, reaching for the warm, familiar lump of a partner’s body, and discovering only nothingness. “When this happened, I felt, in order: stupid; sad; disappointed; vindicated when I remembered something similar happened to Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.” There’s no delusion of grandeur here – “I was not an incredibly chic voice of a generation who had lost her life’s love” – but there is a recognition of the deep shock of separation; a sense of how traumatic relationship breakdown can be.
Somewhere in the midst of Maggie’s adventures – flirtations with bisexuality, frantic spin classes, recreational axe throwing – she is grappling with the question of responsibility. Is separation a matter of personal failing? And how does a person make peace with that for the rest of a life? In between the jokes, Maggie’s still working it out.
Sign up to Inside Saturday
The only way to get a look behind the scenes of our brand new magazine, Saturday. Sign up to get the inside story from our top writers as well as all the must-read articles and columns, delivered to your inbox every weekend.
Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.